The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence takes a bow.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Nelson Ascensio, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid. Directed by Gary Ross

 

For some, Darwinism boils down to survival of the fittest. Only those equipped to make it in a brutal, indifferent environment will move on to the next round. We see this in our social networking. We see this in our reality television.

In the future, it is all over our lives as well. After the fall of the United States, a new nation of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses meaning bread and circuses) rises. It is comprised of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. After a failed uprising, the Capitol has ordered that one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district would be selected at random and brought to the Capital for a fight to the death. Only one of the 24 young people would survive the competition, which was televised and became known as the Hunger Games.

This year is the 74th of the annual events. In District 12, the coal-mining district which is one of the poorest of them all, the people awaiting the Reaping (the ceremony in which the selection of the fighters, known as Tributes, is made) with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Katness Everdeen (Lawrence) is a veteran of these Reapings as is her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) who like many young people is chafed by the injustice of the very rich choosing from the very poor to die for their entertainment. Katness is more practical; she’s concerned with day-to-day survival in a situation where food is scarce.

Her sister Primrose (Shields) is in her first Reaping and is mighty scared about how things will turn out. Katness tries to reassure her; she’ll only have one entry into the Reaping while Katness and Gale have dozens. So of course when the Reaping takes place it is Primrose who is chosen; Katness, aghast, quickly volunteers to take her sister’s place. This isn’t unusual in the more urban districts but this is the first time District 12 has had a volunteer. Somewhat anti-climactically, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the son of a baker, is chosen for the boys.

The two are collected by Effie Trinket (Banks), a dandified handler and whisked away by bullet train to Capitol. There they are to be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), a sullen alcoholic who has the distinction of winning the Hunger Games twenty years previously. There is also Cinna (Kravitz), a genius of a designer whose purpose is to make the Tributes look as memorable as possible so they might attract sponsors, wealthy patrons who send their favored medicine, food, water and other supplies during the course of the game.

Training is interspersed by media appearances, particularly on the wildly popular talk show of Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) where Peeta lets it slip that he’s had an unrequited crush on Katness. When the game begins, Haymitch warns Katness to stay away from the cornucopia which would be a bloodbath and to find high ground and water. She follows his advice and is able to survive the brutal first few hours in which half the Tributes die.

Her skills in hunting and tracking serve her well, particularly as an alliance has been formed by Cato (Ludwig), Glimmer (Rambin) and Marvel (Quaid), some of the older and better-trained Tributes. Peeta has thrown in with this lot to help hunt down Katness who has quickly become one of the more popular Tributes. Katness is joined by Rue (Stenberg) who helps her outwit the alliance by pointing out a nest of Tracker Jackers, a kind of genetically enhanced hornet whose sting causes hallucinations and death, at least for Glimmer.

It will soon become apparent that Katness will not only be fighting her fellow Tributes but also the powers that be, led by the amoral President Snow (Sutherland) who don’t want to see the inspirational Katness succeed. The Hunger Games are turning out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

The wildly popular young adult books have transitioned well to the big screen, which translated to the third-largest opening of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel. The movie has gotten high critical praise and is rapidly on its way to becoming the next cultural phenomenon, replacing the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

It is also going to make a huge star out of Jennifer Lawrence. Katness is in many ways an iconic character; she’s a young woman of strength and ethics who feeds her family (much as Lawrence’s Ree Dolly did in Winter’s Bone) but shows compassion for the weak. She knows that her society isn’t just but is concerned more about survival until pushed to the limit. She makes for quite the role model.

Like in the Twilight series, Katness is faced with the love of two different men – the earnest and charismatic Peeta as well as the good-hearted and intelligent Gale. Expect hours of conversation between pre-teens and their moms about the relative merits of both gentlemen and which one is the right one for Katness.

Director Gary Ross has opted to go with a good deal of handheld camera work here, mostly to signify Katness’ point of view and illustrate the chaotic nature of the Games. That might be exciting for the younger viewers but for us older folks it gets annoying and intrusive; there are better ways to illustrate chaos than blurry, shaky images that make you want to look away from the screen than be mesmerized by it.

The images are dazzling in places, but not as much as I thought it would be. The overall look of Capitol is kind of like Versailles if it had been designed by the art director of The Fifth Element. It screams decadence and autocracy quite nicely, while dressing up the citizens of the outlying districts in homespun not unlike pioneers.

The action sequences are pretty marvelous although not necessarily groundbreaking. The stunts aren’t too terribly violent although there are a couple of pretty messy deaths here. Definitely original author Suzanne Collins has succeeded in creating a new environment that is simultaneously familiar and alien, inhabited by Tracker Jackers and mellifluous mockingjays (songbirds who appear in the movie’s emblem) as well as digitized Muttations.

There are those who see a socio-political commentary in the film; conservatives look at the young people as the Tea Party vs. the elitist left-leaning establishment, whereas liberals look at the young people as signifying the Occupy movement against the one per-centers. You are free to choose whichever interpretation you wish, or to make up one of your own. This is meant to be socio-political commentary disguised as entertainment but Collins is wise enough to be fairly vague in who’s who. That makes for some fairly nondescript politics but at least it is a place to start conversations. And when you’re talking one of the year’s most successful movies (having made three times its production budget in the first eight days), that’s not a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Several steps above the Twilight franchise. Lawrence sends her career to the next level.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little bit too long. Left me ambivalent about the inevitable next film in the franchise. Shaky cam was distracting and annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design for the cornucopia was based on the work of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan’s Run

GLADIATOR LOVERS: There are numerous references to ancient Rome, from the names of the citizens of Capitol (Coriolanus, Seneca, Cato) to the weapons used in the Games themselves.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

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Hulk


Hulk

./ I left...my Hulllllllllllk....in San Franciscooooooooo...! ./

(2003) Superhero (Universal) Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Celia Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Kevin Rankin, Todd Tesen, Mike Erwin, Lou Ferrigno, Stan Lee, Regi Davis. Directed by Ang Lee

 

As the great existentialist philosopher Kermit the Frog (think about it) once said, “It’s not easy being green” and Hulk is a movie which brings that concept to life.

Based on the Marvel comic book much more than the television series that it spawned (more on that in a minute), Eric Bana. in his first international role outside his native Australia, is Bruce Banner, a geneticist working with gamma radiation in order to improve the human condition. His girlfriend, Betty Ross (Connelly) works alongside him in a Bay Area-based lab.

Things go awry when in a lab accident, Bruce is exposed to a lethal dose of gamma radiation. To everyone’s surprise, he doesn’t die. In fact, he seems to be healthier than ever. This, of course, catches the notice of the U.S. Military, in the form of General Thunderbolt Ross (Elliott), who is, in fact, Betty’s estranged father.

Bruce has an estranged father, too…emphasis on the “strange.” Nick Nolte, who apparently thinks the hairstyle in his notorious mugshot photo is the height of modern follicle fancy, plays David Banner (in a nod to the TV show, which changed the name of the Hulk’s alter ego to David) whom Bruce had thought dead. David was not dead, but just a little — How do we say it? — whacko.

Turns out David was a scientist in his own right, and in the tradition of over-the-top scientists, performed an experiment on himself, which was genetically passed on to his son. Later, as David gets more and more eccentric, the military (which employs him) becomes more and more concerned and eventually shuts down his microbiological research.

David loses it, and this leads to a traumatic incident which causes David to leave, and for Bruce to be scarred for life, although the exact nature of what happens isn’t revealed until late in the movie.

Bruce returns home, thinking everything is fine, but after being put under emotional stress, changes into a green-skinned behemoth, fiendishly strong and nearly invulnerable, able to leap enormous distances in single bounds. This, of course, really catches the military’s interest, and soon Bruce is under wraps in a secret desert facility. Ironically the same one at which his father worked, 20 years earlier.

The old man surfaces as well, with an agenda of his own. To further complicate things, an old flame of Betty’s, Talbot (Lucas) steps back into the picture to not only try to win Betty back, but as the head of a biotech research company, to exploit Banner and his alter ego. Of course, this leads to a great deal of “Hulk smash.”

Many theatergoers who wanted to love this movie found that they couldn’t, partly because director Ang Lee has made what is in effect two movies. The first, a psychological drama that mainly takes up the first half of the movie, one true to Lee’s art-house roots. The second is an over-the-top, computer-generated-effects-laden action thriller.

The two, for much of the movie-going public, were irreconcilable. I, on the other hand, found the two movies working well together, bringing not only a sense of angst, but an emotional level that makes the Hulk and Bruce Banner figures of tragedy, rather than powerful demigods, as many superheroes become.

Part of the movie’s theatrical problems lay in its marketing; the computer-generated Hulk scenes that made the trailer look cheesier on the small screen than on the big one. As the opening of the movie approached back in the day I remember remarking to Da Queen how a movie which I had anticipated would be one of that summer’s biggest was becoming less and less of a must-see for me, although I wound up seeing it anyway — and I’m glad I did.

The reason is two-fold, which fits in with the movie’s themes nicely. First, the human side – the acting. Bana, who has to play a cold, emotionally distant man early in the movie, is forced to deal with his feelings as the movie progresses. It’s a powerful performance in more ways than one, and set up Bana to pursue the path to stardom taken by countrymen Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and  the late Heath Ledger. What is it with Australia producing such great leading men lately, anyway? There must be something in the water.)

Jennifer Connelly, who debuted as a lustrous ingénue in another comic book adaptation The Rocketeer showed that her Academy Award-winning turn with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind was no fluke. She played Ross not as a simpering victim as she eventually became in the comic book, but as a capable, independent-minded woman with a great deal of depth and a lot of emotional baggage, which is how the character began in the comic book. Connelly nails that side of her here.

The other reason Hulk is a winner is the title character himself – the technical side. Bana morphs into a fully CG creature, but like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hulk is a tragic sorrowful creature, one who displays a wide emotional range of expressions. You see pathos and fury at various times on the face of the creature which makes him more than a monster. Like the best movie monsters, you feel sympathy for his plight.

And that brings me to what I really loved about this movie; the fact that it is a tragedy, and the characters in it inspire sympathy. Even the nutty David Banner, whom Nolte plays with a certain scene-chewing zest – is not really fully a monster, although by the time the movie ends he has become one. When the Hulk causes Betty fear, he displays a brooding sorrow that really sent chills up my spine. Even today when I watch the movie again, it still does.

Unfortunately, Hulk received a chilly critical reception, as well as less-than-scintillating word-of-mouth on the Internet. I can understand some finding the dual-movies approach a bit off-putting. Quite frankly, people with a limited range of cinematic appreciation are going to have problems with Hulk.

However, I think that a much larger percentage of the movie-going population will find this a worthwhile investment of time. If you skipped this movie during its theatrical release because of the unfavorable notices, do yourself a favor and give it a chance on home video; see it on as big a TV screen as you can find. Make up your own mind on this one; you may be pleasantly surprised to find a movie that didn’t deserve the critical and fanboy whipping it took.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bana and Connelly. Hulk creature sympathetic and well-articulated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some over-the-top scene chewing. Dichotomy between superhero action and psychological drama too much for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence in a superhero/science fiction vein, a little bit of bad language, a few disturbing images and some partial nudity, albeit a brief view of nothing offensive.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The motion capture for the Hulk creature was performed by Ang Lee himself.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the evolution of the character from the comic books to the TV series to the first film (of course, the more recent Edward Norton version isn’t mentioned in the feature, having been made five years after this version. There is also a series of Sunny Delight ads (!) that tied in to the film on the Special Edition DVD (although thankfully missing from the Blu-Ray). There is also a close-up look at the dog fight scene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.4M on a $137M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Hunger Games

As Good As Dead


As Good As Dead

Cary Elwes tries not to make a crack to Andie MacDowell about using a stronger brand of sun lotion.

(2010) Thriller (First Look) Cary Elwes, Andie MacDowell, Frank Whaley, Matt Dallas, Jess Weixler, Nicole Ansari, Brian Cox, Clark Middleton, Emma Kantor, Juliette Bennett, Nasry Malak, Crispian Belfrage, Claudine Oriol, Mario D’Leon, Elissa Middleton. Directed by Jonathan Mossek

 

Vengeance is a dish best served cold or so they say. Ten years after is plenty of time for the dish to cool down I’d say.

Ethan Belfrage (Elwes) is a left-leaning photojournalist in New York  who has a family, a nice loft in midtown and a fairly successful career. He walks the dog, is friendly with the neighbors and is in general an upstanding citizen.

When a pair of thugs break into his apartment and tie him up to a chair, he is at first alarmed but not too surprised – apartment break-ins are not entirely unknown in the Big Apple. When a hideously scared woman calling herself Helen Kalahan (MacDowell) strides in, Ethan becomes a little bit concerned. When it turns out that one of the thugs, Jake (Dallas) is her son, Ethan begins to get a bit suspicious. When he notices that the other one, Aaron (Whaley) has an SS tattoo on his neck and seems more than a little bit bloodthirsty and unhinged, Ethan begins to sweat.

It turns out that Helen believes that Ethan had something to do with the murder of her husband (Cox), the hate-spewing preacher of a kind of skinhead survivalist fundamentalist Christian cult. She means to extract a confession from him, even though Ethan denies it. In fact, he denies it under torture, which doesn’t seem to impress Aaron all that much. When Ethan denies it after Aaron intentionally injects an overdose into a neighbor woman, well, one begins to wonder if maybe he is innocent after all. Still, you get the nagging feeling that Ethan knows a hell of a lot more than he’s telling.

This has a Hitchcockian element to it that’s quite pleasant; there are bad men involved and you’re not sure if the lead character might not be worse than the lot of them – and you have the nagging suspicion that he’s getting his just deserts. Then again the murdered pastor is so heinous that you can’t help feeling that justice was served on that end as well.

MacDowell, long one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, spends the entire movie in make-up depicting terrible scars, walking with a limp and generally spewing hateful things. One of the true Southern belles in the business, it’s kind of shocking to see the twisted reverse of that institution – it’s frightening and fascinating at the same time. This is truly one of her best roles in the last few years.

The movie is for the most part well-scripted although it bogs down occasionally. There is a sense that there is cruelty and violence mostly for its own sake; it loses its shock value early on and I think the film might have benefitted with more psychological aspects – as when the neighbor is slowly dying and Ethan is helpless (or is he?) to save her.

I think if they’d tightened up the writing a bit and cut some of the filler this might have been quite a taut little thriller. A little more flashback showing off the “good” pastor might have added a bit to some of the backstory, particularly to Jake who seems a tad conflicted here. There are enough elements to give this a slight recommendation, but not really enough that I feel motivated to urge anyone to go out of their way to find it either.

WHY RENT THIS: Tense when it needs to be and rather than revealing the twist all at once, does it in stages which is in itself a nice twist. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turgid and muddled in places. Uses violence more gratuitously than necessary.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it brutal), a bit of drug content and a fair amount of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MacDowell is originally from Gaffney, South Carolina and rose to fame as a model, with Yves St. Laurent, The Gap, Vogue and Calvin Klein.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55,618 on an unreported production budget; I wouldn’t bet on profitability here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Hulk

New Releases for the Week of March 30, 2012


March 30, 2012

WRATH OF THE TITANS

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Toby Kebbell, Edgar Ramirez. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Retired hero and demigod Perseus has been living a life of quiet satisfaction as a fisherman but a visit from his father Zeus changes all that. Apparently the power of the Gods has been siphoned out by the lack of worship from their human charges and the Titans, the cruel and vicious forbears of the Gods who have been imprisoned in Mt. Tatarus for thousands of years, are growing strong enough to break out of the weakened Gods’ bondage. With Hades and Ares switching side, it will take the combined might of the humans and Gods to save the world from the tyranny of the Titans.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action)

Mirror Mirror

(Relativity) Julia Roberts, Nathan Lane, Armie Hammer, Lily Collins.  A wicked Queen who has lived life as the fairest of them all gets a rude shock when she discovers there’s a new contender for the title – princess in exile Snow White. Snow has about had enough of the evil Queen and vows to reclaim her kingdom with the help of seven rebellious dwarves who will also help her win back her Prince – once he finishes sniffing his own hind end, that is.

See the trailer, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Fantasy Comedy

Rating: PG (for some fantasy action and mild rude humor)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

(CBS) Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked. A visionary sheikh decides he wants to import the pastime of fly fishing into Yemen. He enlists the help of a skeptical Scottish fisheries expert who doesn’t think it can be done. However when the British Prime Minister’s overzealous press secretary, looking for a feel-good story in the Middle East turns the screws to see that it gets done, the Scot begins to fall for the sheikh’s strange dream as well as for an attractive consultant.

See the trailer and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content, and brief language)

Thin Ice

(ATO) Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Billy Crudup, Lea Thompson. An insurance man trying to turn his life around and win back his estranged wife hits upon a scheme to con an old man out of a rare and valuable musical instrument. Things go sideways when a nosy, volatile locksmith inserts himself into the plan and creates havoc that spirals dangerously out of control.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy/Thriller/Drama

Rating: R (for language, and brief violent and sexual content)

W.E.

(Weinstein) Abby Cornish, Oscar Isaac, James D’Arcy, Andrea Riseborough.  A young woman obsessed with the story of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson is given access to private correspondence from the American divorcee which may put her romantic notions of the couple to the test. Madonna directs this love story set in two different time frames.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: R (for domestic violence, nudity and language)

Love Ranch


Love Ranch

Joe Pesci is thrilled to find out that Helen Mirren loves the smell of a good cigar.

(2010) Drama (Entertainment One) Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton, Bai Ling, Elise Neal, Bryan Cranston, Rick Gomez, M.C. Gainey, Gil Birmingham, Emily Rios, Melora Walters, Harve Presnell. Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

Some stories are just not destined to have happy endings. They are simply put, train wrecks just waiting to happen. Even those intimately involved know that things are going to end badly.

Charlie Bontempo (Pesci) has what most would call the good life. He owns one of the first legal brothels in the United States which gives him a lot of sexual outlets, as well as being married to Sally (Mirren) who runs the business end of things. However Charlie loves the flamboyant lifestyle of the bright lights of Reno – big cigars, expensive cars, imported champagne – a lifestyle not really supported by what he’s bringing in on the “ranch” which is really a bunch of trailers surrounding an old hotel-like building. It’s a bit flea-bitten, but it’s home.

Charlie needs to bring more income in and he thinks he has the way to do that; by managing a promising Argentine boxer named Armando Bruza (Peris-Mencheta). Unfortunately, Charlie can’t get a manager’s license in Nevada because he’s a convicted felon. Therefore he persuades Sally to take on the job of managing and training Armando.

Sally is initially less than enthusiastic about the prospects of being a boxing manager. She knows very little about the sport and she would much rather be tending to the family business. But as she gets to know Armando, she finds that he is falling hard for her. At first it’s amusing, then it’s annoying – she’s a goodly number of years older than he. However, he reawakens in her that has been killed by the years of Charlie’s philandering and taking her for granted and she falls hard for Armando.

This doesn’t sit well with Charlie, needless to say and he tries to reclaim the relationship with his wife but as she rightly reckons, it’s hard to tell if Charlie really wants her back because he loves her or more because he can’t stand losing what’s his. Things begin to spiral out of control and as we mentioned earlier, everyone knows this isn’t going to end well.

This is loosely based on the story of the Mustang Ranch, owned by Joe and Sally Conforte whose love triangle with Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena ended as depicted here. Director Taylor Hackford is not one of my favorite directors; while some of his films have been passable (Against All Odds, Everybody’s All-American) most have been just plain awful with one exception – Ray.

This was his first movie since directing the Oscar-winning musical biopic and it only took six years for it to hit the multiplex – softly. There was definitely some interference in the making of the final product; more than hour of footage was left on the cutting room floor, much of it having to do with character development.  As a result beyond the ill-fated love triangle none of the characters have much personality going for them.

It goes without saying that Mirren is one of the finest living actresses; she can be icy cold or red hot or anywhere in between. Here she needs to be the former most of the time while showing signs of the latter. Her desperation and frustration clearly show through – she can more than hold her own with the flamboyant Charlie – but there is a very wounded, vulnerable core here and Mirren nails it. Whatever is wrong with this movie, it isn’t Helen Mirren.

It isn’t Joe Pesci either. Yeah, there are those who it could be said were breaking the balls of this movie because Pesci was playing a flamboyant Italian criminal as he did in Goodfellas and other movies he’s been in. Well, the guy who the part was based on was a flamboyant Italian criminal; I don’t blame the casting director one bit for going after the best in the world for that kind of role. In all honesty, it was marvelous seeing him back in the kind of part that he made famous. I am not ashamed to say that I’m one of the guy’s biggest fans and even though I tend to prefer him in comedies, I am happy to see him in anything.

Despite their chemistry and their talent, Pesci and Mirren aren’t enough to save a movie that plods through a plot that is remarkably un-sexy despite being set in a whorehouse. The emphasis is put on the love triangle which is fine – that is the crux of the story after all, but given the rich location and the possibilities for drama, why skimp on that side of it? Also some of the dialogue is a bit klunky. There are times the actors look a little embarrassed that they’re saying it…at least it appears that way to me.

I don’t know if Hackford had gotten his way that this would have been a better movie. It certainly would have been a longer one. The story would be a compelling one if only they had let it breathe a little bit. Unfortunately, it feels like there were too many fingers in the pie and when that happens, all you can taste in the pie is the fingers.

WHY RENT THIS: Pesci and Mirren make for a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: For a film set at a brothel there is remarkably little about the hookers who live there.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, a lot of foul language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mirren and Hackford are married in real life; they previously collaborated on the dance film White Nights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted scenes are pretty standard on any home video release, there are more than an hour’s worth here which Hackford had to trim in order to get the movie to a place the distributors felt comfortable with. Many of them have to do with the hookers who are nearly completely absent  from the final release version. You can watch them all here with or without commentary from Hackford.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137,885 on a $25M production budget; not the kind of numbers a film wants to have in its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:As Good As Dead

Jeff, Who Lives at Home


Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jason Segel believes he's being stalked by Muppets.

(2012) Comedy (Paramount Vantage) Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Evan Ross, Rae Dawn Chong, Steve Zissis, Benjamin Brant Bickham, Lee Nguyen, Tim J. Smith, Ernest James, Katie Aselton, Joe Chrest, Lance E. Nichols, Carol Sutton. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

 

Families are complicated things that we rarely can make heads or tails of, even of our own. We mostly see the people in our families as filling certain roles and rarely can adjust our thinking beyond those definitions we ourselves set. A lot of times those definitions are there from years of observation and experience but every so often those in our family can surprise us.

Jeff (Segel) is a 30-year-old unemployed man who lives in his mom’s basement and apparently has little ambition beyond getting stoned every day. His mom (Sarandon) is exasperated beyond words; she longs for him to find some sort of path that he can follow through life but he doesn’t seemed interested in finding one.

The truth is that Jeff really wants to find that path but isn’t quite sure how. He has determined that life is a series of signs and portents that one must be open to receiving and able to interpret once received. Jeff thinks he is able to do this but thus far hasn’t found the right way yet. So when he gets an angry phone call from a man demanding to speak to Kevin (there is no Kevin in the household) that starts the ball rolling.

It’s also his mom’s birthday and she wants just one thing from him; to go down to the local Home Depot (a bus ride is required) and pick up some wood glue to fix a slat on the shutter doors of the kitchen pantry. While on the bus, he sees someone with the name Kevin on a basketball jersey and follows him, leading him off the path of the wood glue and onto the path of something else.

Pat (Helms) is the married, responsible one. Or at least he is on the surface. In reality his marriage to Linda (Greer) is falling apart at the seams; there is little if any communication going on between them. Judy wants them to save their money to buy a house so that they can raise a family; Pat wants to buy a Porsche so that they can…own a Porsche. Pat impulsively buys one, prompting Judy to dump her breakfast over the car.

The paths of Pat and Jeff cross, leading the Porsche to take a path into a nearby tree. Their paths then intersect with Linda, who apparently is meeting another man in a fancy Bistro that Pat has refused to take her to. Linda’s path then takes her to a hotel room with that man while Pat and Jeff take separate paths, all leading to the same place.

Jeff’s mom, Sharon, is also on a path, looking for the kind of fulfillment and appreciation that comes from a close relationship but she’s been unable to form one since her husband had passed away. She confides in Carol (Chong), a friend from work that she’s been receiving some secret admirer messages from someone at work, but doesn’t know who it is. She is troubled by the attention but also intrigued by it.

Where will this all end up? I can tell you a few things for certain without giving too much away – one, all of the main characters will end up in wet clothes. Two, all paths lead towards New Orleans over the Pontchartrain Bridge. Third, some things take more than wood glue to fix.

The Duplass brothers, who directed this, have a fair amount of indie cred with such films as Baghead and The Puffy Chair to their credit. Their movies tend to be low-key and charming with a certain amount of complexity under the surface that make them ideal for discussion for days after you’ve seen them. They also know how to coax subtle, nuanced performances from the actors in their films and they do the same here.

Segel is rapidly becoming one of the most likable performers in Hollywood. He is big and lovable to the point where his brother calls him a sasquatch, but also has plenty of goofy stoner in him. There are those who compare Segel (somewhat unfairly) to Seth Rogen who is a different kind of performer. Not that Rogen isn’t a nice guy, Segel just seems nicer (see The Muppets). Here he is just kind of treading water through life, allowing the current to take him wherever it will. That can be kind of irritating to those who prefer to swim their own course as most of us do but Jeff is anything but a control freak – he prefers to see what is going to happen rather than making things happen.

Helms is rapidly becoming a go-to guy in the comedy landscape with roles in “The Office” as well as The Hangover series, as well as Cedar Rapids. This is a bit of a departure for him – he is not the lovable nerd here but he is more of a hustler sort, the kind of role more familiar to guys like Vince Vaughn. If this were a different sort of movie, I might have even preferred Vaughn in the part but to be honest, as much of a con-man as Pat is the movie wouldn’t be able to accept someone as over-the-top as Vaughn. Helms gives it just the right amount of undertones.

Judy Greer has graduated from mainly playing the best friend of the rom-com lead to playing terrific wives criminally ignored by their husbands (as she does in The Descendants). She is one of those actresses who doesn’t get a lot of kudos but quietly performs strongly in every role she takes on. This is the kind of part that can be easily overlooked by a performer of her caliber makes that impossible to happen.

Because Jeff is so innately a good guy, the movie has a quiet sweetness to it that never gets too sentimental or too saccharine. However, the Duplass brothers seem bound and determined to brand this as an indie feature; they have a tendency to zoom the camera in nearly every scene as kind of a Duplass trademark. It gets irritating after awhile and seems to be a minor case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

This isn’t a movie that is going to overwhelm you or offer some life-shattering insight, although you may come to one eventually on our own. It isn’t going to be the kind of movie you leave with your sides aching with laughter, although you will at least chuckle at some of the situations. This is a movie about life and about the resilience of family to overcome even the greatest of gulfs. I like this movie and even if it doesn’t shout its name from the rooftops, well, a quality movie doesn’t have to.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet to its core but not so sweet your blood sugar spikes. Nice performances from the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Camera moves draw attention to themselves. Occasionally suffers from over-quirkiness.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language including some with sexual connotations, and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the movie was shot in New Orleans suburb Metairie, doubling for Baton Rouge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are good though not great.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cyrus

STREET BALL LOVERS: Early on, Jeff participates in a pretty convincing game of street basketball, although Segel appears more adept at hoops than you think he might be.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Ranch

21 Jump Street


21 Jump Street

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill prepare for the next Tour de France.

(2012) Crime Comedy (MGM/Columbia) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, DeRay Davis, Jake Johnson, Johnny Simmons, Johnny Pemberton, Dakota Johnson, Ellie Kemper, Holly Robinson Peete, Dax Flame, Caroline Aaron, Joe Chrest. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

 

Those of you who might remember the late 80s undercover cops in high school drama might mostly remember it for the presence of Johnny Depp, who used his appearance in the show to catapult himself into movie stardom. Most don’t remember that it took on issues of drug abuse, child abuse, teen sex, gang violence, school violence, racial tension and teen drinking, among others things. Sure, it was mostly formulaic and doesn’t hold up well over time (it was very much a child of the era) but it had its good points.

This film version, co-scripted by Hill, takes little of what originally comprised the series and kind of turns it for the most part on its ear. Schmidt (Hill) was a nerd in high school,  a sweet-natured kid who due to his girth, social awkwardness and braces was the butt of a large number of jokes. Jenko (Tatum) was a popular jock, not too bright unfortunately but all about fitting in. The two couldn’t have come from more different viewpoints if they had been born on different planets.

Yet they share something in common; both of them want to be police officers. What went on in high school seems to be continuing at the academy; Schmidt aces the written exams but does poorly in the physical training while Jenko rules in the physical aspect but fails the written exams. The two realize that they can help each other and thus an unlikely friendship is formed, leading to their graduation from the Police Academy.

They are immediately assigned to park duty on bicycles, which causes Jenko to muse “I thought there’d be a lot more car chases and explosions and less homeless people doo dooing on the sidewalk.”  They catch a lucky break when they find a bike gang loitering around in the park with drugs on them. They make the arrest but it’s immediately thrown out because Jenko fails to read the Miranda rights to the suspect; in fact, he does not even know what they are.

Both Jenko and Schmidt are exiled to a program that had been shelved since the ’80s; a high school undercover group headquartered at an abandoned Korean Christian church at 21 Jump Street. There they are given their assignment by Captain Dickson (Cube), the stereotypical black captain with anger management issues. They are joined by fellow officers Hoffs (Peete) among others who look at the two newest additions as losers.

The two are assigned to find the supplier of a new designer drug at Sagan High and are given new identities as brothers staying with Schmidt’s parents (Aaron, Chrest). One is supposed to be a nerd and the other popular, but because they are knuckleheads they mix up which one is supposed to be witch so Schmidt winds up being the track star/popular guy and Jenko the science nerd.

That’s just as well because things have changed considerably since they were in school. Compassion and ecological awareness is more what makes you popular these days and the two quickly find out  that the dealer is Eric (Franco), a sensitive sort who quickly bonds with Schmidt who finds that his second go-round in high school is far more enjoyable than his first. Jenko struggles at first with the learning but thanks to helpful science geeks he suddenly finds he has an aptitude for it.

The two have to put up with overzealous gym teachers (Riggle), an oversexed science teacher (Kemper) who’d like nothing more than to get inappropriate with Jenko and a sweet cheerleader (Larson) who has developed a bit of a crush on Schmidt. However, finding the supplier proves to be a tougher challenge than they thought and soon Jenko and Schmidt are facing being drummed out of the force if they can’t stop the tide of HFC flooding the school.

This isn’t a remake but more of a re-imagining and to nearly every critic’s surprise it actually works. This could easily have been just another big, dumb movie (which many remakes of classic television shows have been) that adds nothing to the mix but it actually is quite entertaining. It manages to balance the line between action and comedy nicely and even if Jonah Hill isn’t who you’d think of as the next action star and Channing Tatum the next big comic actor, they acquit themselves nicely in fish-out-of-water roles.

In fact, the reason the two do so well is that they play to their strengths and avoid doing things that are beyond their capabilities. Tatum has been busy of late (and will continue to be) with roles mostly in romances and action films but he relies on his not-too-bright character to generate most of the laughs, playing on cop show (and cop movie) clichés and becomes part of the joke rather than having the joke be on him. Hill isn’t a great physical specimen (although he lost 40 pounds for the role) and the likelihood that a pretty high school-age girl would fall for him are pretty long, he makes his character pretty decent at heart (although he does show some dick-ery during the second half of the film when he is trying to fit in with the popular crowd).

Larson is not only easy to look at, she’s also got a good deal of talent and does a pretty good job here; she’s one of those actresses who have a great deal of promise if she can get the right sort of roles and this one is one of them.

The action sequences aren’t super-exciting and they don’t particularly give you any gee wow moments, although they tend to focus on Schmidt’s complete lack of competence in the physical aspects, which adds to the comedy nicely.

I’d just like to go on record as saying I wasn’t a particular fan of the show when it aired and thus I had no expectations going in. I will say this is mighty entertaining although there are plenty of other films out there that are just as good. Let’s just say this is better than average and not a waste of time and in fact there are plenty of people out there who are REALLY going to like it. Do check it out and not just for the cameos.

REASONS TO GO: Credible action comedy that blends just enough action with just enough laughs. Plays to the strengths of the lead actors.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing groundbreaking here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug content as well as crude humor and sexual content, some teen drinking, a bit of violence and pretty much non-stop swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatum’s character Jenko is named for the first captain on the series, Capt. Richard Jenko who was played by Frederic Forrest and was killed off after the first season.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starsky and Hutch

ORIGINAL SERIES LOVERS: Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise make cameo appearances near the end of the movie as their original characters from the series; Peete is present throughout the film as her original character and Dustin Nguyen shows up on television several times when characters in the film are watching TV and the original series is always on.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Jeff, Who Lives at Home